Regulations kill a dream

Regulations kill a dream

August 22nd, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

How many regulations are necessary to dictate how a licensed, responsible adult should operate an oversized tricycle? If those regulations come from the nanny-state tyrants responsible for drafting the City of Chattanooga's pedicab ordinance, the answer is 11 pages' worth.

When longtime Chattanooga-area resident Christian "Thor" Thoreson and his partner Christina Holmes decided to launch Buzz Chattanooga Pedicabs in February 2011, the business seemed tailor-made for the downtown area.

Thoreson's pedicabs, which are pedal-driven tricycles with a two-person passenger compartment attached behind the driver, fill an important need for downtown. By offering a cheap and convenient way for people to get around between hotels, tourist attractions, bars and restaurants, Buzz Chattanooga is a boon for tourist and a convenient addition for locals.

The pedicabs prevent drunk driving and free up precious parking spaces. They also cut down on auto emissions - a major plus for a city as hell-bent on glomming on every goofy green fad that comes down the pike as Chattanooga.

The service is inexpensive - it costs passengers only the amount they wish to tip their driver - and it provides well-paying jobs for Buzz Chattanooga drivers. Thoreson estimates his drivers make more than $20 an hour. Revenues from selling ads on the pedicab and a small cut of driver tips fund the business.

The pedicabs seem like a win for everyone. They provide a needed service for tourists, help get people in local businesses, get drunk drivers off the road, are environmentally friendly and provide Chattanoogans with well-paying jobs.

But apparently, city officials don't see it that way.

Otherwise, Thoreson wouldn't have dealt with the mountain of red tape he faced in order to make Buzz Chattanooga a reality.

• • •

Just to get Buzz Chattanooga off the ground, Thoreson had to abide by those 11 pages of pedicab-specific regulations. And that's on top of the dozens and dozens of pages of rules pertaining to all for-hire vehicles in the city, including pedicabs.

The city ordinance limited the number of pedicab permits available, capping the number of pedicabs serving Chattanooga to just six. Each pedicab permit requires a $100 fee.

Those six pedicabs have to be outfitted with a horn, a rearview mirror, headlights, taillights and turn signal.

Pedicab drivers are required to go through an intensive licensing process by the city, including passing a test given through the Chattanooga Police Department Regulatory Bureau Transportation Inspector's office, as well as being subjected to a drug screening and a background search.

City regulations don't allow pedicabs to cruise for passengers - they must remain parked and wait for customers. Strangely, even though cars often come much closer, pedicabs must stay at least 10 feet away from horse-drawn carriages. The vehicles also can't be operated in public parks.

But there is one regulation in the mountain of rules that pedicab owner and operators must follow that is more unfair and outlandish than any other.

Sec. 35-251(3) of the Chattanooga City Code states that a "pedicab driver shall not operate a pedal carriage or pedicab on any bridge or in any tunnel."

That's right, pedicabs can't take passengers the 2,000 feet from downtown to North Shore. Pedicabs aren't allowed on the Market Street bridge. They're not even allowed on the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge.

They can't take visitors staying at the Delta Queen to the Chattanooga Aquarium. They can't take downtown workers to have dinner at Good Dog or to share a drink at North Chatt Cat.

When Thoreson went to the Chattanooga City Council in May 2011 to try to get the ridiculous bridge ordinance amended to allow his pedicab drivers to use the pedestrian bridge, council members proved outrageously ignorant about the issue and unwilling to listen.

Larry Zehnder, administrator of the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department, advised the city council that having a "speedy motor vehicle [on the pedestrian bridge] could be a hazard." Since a pedicab is pedal driven, has no motor and can go only as fast as the driver's legs can carry it, it's hard to imagine just what in the world would lead Zehnder to make such an unbelievably silly, ill-informed and outright wrong statement.

Unfortunately, Councilman Jack Benson later parroted Zehnder's goofy belief.

Councilman Peter Murphy expressed concern that the bridge's "width is not sufficient" for Buzz Chattanooga's 50-inch-wide pedicabs. Apparently, Murphy was unaware that the pedicabs are actually narrower than the utility vehicles the city maintenance workers frequently drive from one side of the bridge to the other.

As a result of the city council's unwillingness to address the pedicab regulations reasonably and with any degree of intellectual honesty, the bridge restriction remains.

• • •

After dealing with the frustrating regulations placed on his business, the unwillingness of city leaders to allow him to serve customers on both sides of the river and difficulties in selling ads on the pedicabs, Thoreson decided yesterday to throw in the towel and close Buzz Chattanooga.

When asked what he'd tell another entrepreneur considering starting a business in Chattanooga, Thoreson replied, "Stay the hell away."

Thoreson's story is the hidden side of regulations that the city council and other bureaucrats rarely consider in their absurd exercises in trying to keep people safe and micromanage businesses. Too often, regulations stifle entrepreneurs' ability to innovate, and prevent them from improving their businesses, serving more customers and, ultimately, making Chattanooga a better place.

If the Chattanooga City Council had simply removed the inane regulation preventing pedicabs from crossing the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge, Buzz Chattanooga would likely still be in business. As a result of failing to trim unnecessary red tape, it appears the city council actually caused a business to close and cost several hard-working pedicab drivers their jobs.

Chattanooga's businesses are weighed down by hundreds of pointless regulations. Rather than adding red tape and sending more Chattanoogans to the unemployment line, city leaders owe it to job providers to spend time looking for ways to reduce the burdens of excessive regulations on businesses.